Hickman v. Cornwell et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Richard G. Andrews on 08/25/14. (etg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE
STEVEN O. HICKMAN, also known as
STEVEN L. HICKMAN,
Civ. No. 14-368-RGA
CAPT. JOHN G. CORNWELL, et aI.,
Steven O. Hickman, Sussex Correctional Institution, Georgetown, Delaware,
Pro Se Plaintiff.
Plaintiff Steven O. Hickman, a pretrial detainee at the Sussex Correctional
Institution, Georgetown, Delaware, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He
appears pro se and has been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (0.1. 5, 7, 9).
The Court proceeds to review and screen the Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(a).
Plaintiff has a pending criminal matter in State Court and is represented by
Defendants William Bill Moore and Brendan O'Neill, attorneys from the Office of the
Public Defender of the State of Delaware, on multiple charges that he allegedly he
sexually assaulted Defendant Doe (an individual with intellectual disabilities) on January
27,2014. Plaintiff alleges that Moore failed to provide adequate representation and
O'Neill allowed it.
Plaintiff alleges that Defendant police officer Captain John G. Cornwell, learned
of the alleged sexual assault from Defendant Beebe Healthcare Sexual Assault Nurse
Examiner (SANE) Nurse Doe. Cornwell filed a criminal complaint and a warrant issued
on January 28, 2014. (0.1. 2, ex.). Plaintiff alleges that it is clear from the face of the
probable cause affidavit that there was no probable cause for a warrant to issue, other
than Plaintiff's race. (0.1. 2, ex., at 3, contradicts this allegation). Plaintiff alleges that
Cornwell "intentionally falsely reported rape, arrested, detained, and incarcerated
Plaintiff knowing there was no rape", and that Cornwell did not read Plaintiff his Miranda
rights. (0.1. 1, ,-r,-r IV.(4), (5)). Cornwell testified at a February 6,2014 preliminary
hearing, basing his testimony on the victim's statement. (Id. at,-r 7.) Plaintiff alleges
that Nurse Doe coached the victim to say that she was raped.
Plaintiff also alleges that on January 27, 2014, he was denied his right to stop
questioning, apparently in retaliation for a citizen complaint that he filed against the
Milton Police Department on July 11, 2013. (Id. at,-r 7 and ex. A). The citizen
complaint claims that Defendant police officer Cpl. Castro had no probable cause to
charge, arrest, and incarcerate Plaintiff for possession of cocaine on May 18, 2013.
(Id.) Plaintiff seeks damages from Castro because she tried to get Plaintiff to do
something wrong so that she could beat Plaintiff. The Complaint alleges that Cornwell
is the officer who investigated the citizen's complaint.
Plaintiff further alleges that he asked Defendant Milton Mayor Marion Steward to
go with him to the police station because he was afraid that he would be threatened.
The Mayor called the police station and asked for a copy of the complaint. Plaintiff
alleges that the Mayor is aware of misconduct at the Milton Police Department.
The complaint names Delaware Attorney General Joseph R. Biden, III, as a
defendant because "he is over the mayor and the Milton Police Department." Plaintiff
also named as defendants Drs. Melissa Arzadon and Elisa Montrose Lopez, both
physicians at Bayhealth, for lack of medical practices and lack of medical procedures
due to false report of rape. Finally, the Complaint names Delaware Family
Commissioner Andrew Southmayd as a defendant because Plaintiff was not
represented by counsel when Plaintiff appeared before the Commissioner on February
10,2014, and he sentenced Plaintiff to sixty days VOP until Plaintiff paid the child
support he owes.
This Court must dismiss, at the earliest practicable time, certain in forma
pauperis and prisoner actions that are frivolous, malicious, fail to state a claim, or seek
monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915(e)(2) (in forma pauperis actions); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in which prisoner
seeks redress from a governmental defendant). The Court must accept all factual
allegations in a complaint as true and take them in the light most favorable to a pro se
plaintiff. See Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 229 (3d Cir. 2008).
The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant
to § 1915(e)(2)(8)(ii) and § 1915A(b)(1) is identical to the legal standard used when
ruling on Rule 12(b)(6) motions. See Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d
Cir. 1999). However, before dismissing a complaint or claims for failure to state a claim
upon which relief may be granted pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C.
§§ 1915 and 1915A, the Court must grant Plaintiff leave to amend his complaint, unless
amendment would be inequitable or futile. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hasp., 293
F.3d 103,114 (3d Cir. 2002).
A well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere labels and conclusions.
See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S.
544 (2007). The assumption of truth is inapplicable to legal conclusions or to
U[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action supported by mere
conclusory statements." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. When determining whether dismissal
is appropriate, the court must take three steps: "(1) identify!] the elements of the claim,
(2) review the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) look at the
well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluat[e] whether all of the elements
identified in part one of the inquiry are sufficiently alleged." Malleus v. George, 641
F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011). Elements are sufficiently alleged when the facts in the
complaint "show" that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting
Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2». Deciding whether a claim is plausible will be a "context-specific
task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common
Because Plaintiff proceeds pro se, his pleading is liberally construed and his
Complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than
formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)
(internal quotation marks omitted).
Plaintiff's claims against Nurse Doe, Victim Doe, Dr. Arzadon, Moore, O'Neill,
and Dr. Lopez fail as a matter of law. When bringing a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must
allege that some person has deprived him of a federal right, and that the person who
caused the deprivation acted under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48
(1988). The claims against Nurse Doe, Victim Doe, Dr. Arzadon, and Dr. Lopez fail as
they are not state actors. Nor do public defenders Moore and O'Neill act under color of
state law when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant in
criminal proceedings. See Polk Cnty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312 (1981).
The claims against Commissioner Southmayd also fail as he is immune from
suit. 1 Judges are absolutely immune from suits for monetary damages and such
immunity cannot be overcome by allegations of bad faith or malice. Mireles v. Waco,
502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991). Furthermore, judicial immunity can only be overcome if the
judge has acted outside the scope of his judicial capacity or in the "complete absence
of all jurisdiction." Id. at 11-12. The complaint contains no allegations that
Commissioner Southmayd acted outside the scope of his judicial capacity, or in the
absence of any jurisdiction. Commissioner Southmayd is immune from suit for
monetary liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Plaintiff alleges that Attorney General Biden allowed misconduct to take place
and that Mayor Steward knew, or should have known, of police misconduct and allowed
the false report to happen. In essence, Biden and Steward are named as defendants
based upon their supervisory positions.
Local government units and supervisors are not liable under § 1983 solely on a
theory of respondeat superior. See, e.g., Connick v. Thompson, 131 S.Ct. 1350,
1358-60 (2011). "A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in
the alleged wrongs, liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat
superior. Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction
or of actual knowledge and acquiescence." Rode v. De/larciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207
(3d Cir. 1988) (citations omitted).
When a supervisory official is sued in a civil rights action, liability can only be
imposed if that official played an "affirmative part" in the complained-of misconduct.
1Court Commissioners are deemed judicial officers. 10 Del. C. §§ 1315-16.
ChincheJlo v. Fenton, 805 F.2d 126, 133 (3d Cir.1986). Although a supervisor cannot
encourage constitutional violations, a supervisor has "no affirmative constitutional duty
to train, supervise or discipline so as to prevent such conduct." Id. (quoting Brown v.
Grabowski, 922 F.2d 1097, 1120 (3d Cir. 1990». To maintain a claim for supervisory
liability, Plaintiff "must show: (1) that the supervising official personally participated in
the activity; (2) that the supervising official directed others to violate a person's rights; or
(3) that the supervising official had knowledge of and acquiesced in a subordinate's
violations." Bakerv. Monroe Twp., 50 F.3d 1186,1190-91 (3d Cir. 1995).
Plaintiff's claims against Biden and Steward are not sufficient to state a claim.
With regard to Biden, there are no allegations that Biden was aware of any alleged
misconduct. With regard to Steward, Plaintiff relies upon a citizens complaint Plaintiff
filed against Castro for a wrongful arrest some six months prior to his arrest on sexual
assault charges. Notably, there is no mention of Cornwell in the citizen's complaint.
The only common denominator is Plaintiff's claim of arrest without probable cause in
the citizen's complaint and the instant complaint. The Complaint does not allege that
Biden and Steward personally participated in the alleged unlawful activity, that they
directed others to violate Plaintiff's rights, or that they had knowledge of and acquiesced
in Cornwell's alleged violations. The facts, as alleged, do not rise, or come close to
rising, to the level of a constitutional violation.
Plaintiff alleges that on May 18, 2013, Castro tried to get him to do something so
that she could beat him. Plaintiff does not indicate what Castro tried to get him to do.
Nor does he allege that Castro caused him harm. In addition, the citizen complaint filed
by Plaintiff makes no mention of any type of force used by Castro. The Court is unable
to discern from the allegations what it is that Plaintiff claims. Quite simply, the claim
"Iack[s] enough detail to ... serv[e] its function as a guide to discovery." Alston v.
Parker, 363 F.3d 250, 253 (3d Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted). In addition, this
claim is improperly joined as the alleged wrongful act took place in a different timeframe and is unrelated to the other claims raised by Plaintiff. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 18,
False Report. Arrest. Detention. and Incarceration
Plaintiff alleges that he was arrested without probable cause when Cornwell
used a false report to file a criminal complaint and obtain an arrest warrant. "To state a
claim for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment, a plaintiff must establish: (1) that
there was an arrest; and (2) that the arrest was made without probable cause." James
v. City of Wilkes-Barre, 700 F.3d 675,680 (3d Cir. 2012); see also Albright v. Oliver,
510 U.S. 266, 274-75 (1994).
Because Plaintiff's claim of an arrest without probable cause may imply that his
potential conviction on his pending criminal charges is invalid, the claim must be stayed
pending resolution of those charges. See Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 394 (2007).
Therefore, with respect to the claims against Cornwell, the Court will stay this case and
will defer reaching the merits of the claims and the threshold question of whether such
claims are barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 487 (1994),2 until the disposition
21n Heck, the Supreme Court held that where success in a § 1983 action would
implicitly call into question the validity of conviction or duration of sentence, the plaintiff
must first achieve favorable termination of his available state or federal habeas
remedies to challenge the underlying conviction or sentence.
of Plaintiff's pending criminal charges in State Court.
For the above reasons, the claims against Defendants Nurse Doe, Victim Doe,
Dr. Arzadon, Moore, O'Neill, Dr. Lopez, Commissioner Southmayd, Mayor Steward, and
Attorney General Biden will be dismissed as frivolous and because Commissioner
Southmayd is immune from suit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and (iii) and
§ 1915A(b)(1) and (2). Amendment of them would be futile. The claim against Officer
Castro will be dismissed for failure to state a claim. The Court does not have sufficient
information to conclude that any amendment would be futile. The claim does not,
however, belong in this case, and thus Plaintiff will not be allowed to replead it in this
case. The claims against Cornwell will be stayed until resolution of the criminal charges
pending against Plaintiff in State Court.
An appropriate order will be entered.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?